1933’s The Eagle and the Hawk is an interesting film because of the unflinching look it gives at the horrors war inflicts on the men who fight it. It’s also notable for an early performance from a young Cary Grant as aspiring pilot Henry Crocker. At this point Grant had not yet developed the leading-man persona he would become famous for. Instead of displaying the charm and humor present in some of his best known films, a then 28-year-old Grant portrayed a tough, slightly cynical character. It was evident, though, even at this early juncture in his career that he had a natural screen presence and the charisma needed to be a star.
The film’s primary focus is on Crocker’s sometimes rival, sometimes partner Jerry Young (Fredric March). The two men belong to a group of pilots who at the beginning of the film are training and awaiting orders to go off to fight in France in World War I. To start with, the tone of the group – and the film – is light and playful. War, it seems, is just another game to be played, almost like a sport. When the group gets assigned to action in France everyone is upbeat, believing that some exciting new adventure awaits them. This is when the core conflict between Crocker and Young is introduced. Young recommends that Crocker be left behind as he doesn’t believe Crocker has what it takes to be a successful pilot. Judging by the film’s opening scene, wherein Crocker lands his plane upside down, he’s probably right.
Once the group gets to France, things take a darker turn. On Young’s very first flight he loses the observer assigned to him. He is noticeably rattled, but all his commanding officer seems to care about is whether or not they got the photos they were assigned to take on the flight. Young can’t understand why the commanding officer is more concerned about the photographs than he is about the fact that a man has died.
Things only get worse for Young from there. Over a two-month period he loses a total of five observers. Meanwhile, he becomes something of a war hero, even winning medals for his exploits. With each new tragedy, Young somehow becomes braver, more decorated, and more heroic in the eyes of his peers. “Be like Young,” they say. He becomes a shining example for the new men entering the group.
Eventually Crocker shows up in France. He requests to work alongside Young, who is none too happy about this new development. Despite their mutual distaste for each other, the two become a pretty good team in the air. Young is the best pilot there is, and Crocker is as good a gunner as anyone in the group.
Young’s unraveling continues after the two become partners. The more death he witnesses, the more he struggles to maintain his composure. Young begins having nightmares, and Crocker is the only person who knows, as he sees Young babbling and shouting in his sleep. Instead of turning against Young and having him discredited in front of the other men, Crocker does everything he can to maintain the idea that Young is the hero everyone else thinks he is. The more Young becomes unhinged, though, the harder it becomes for Crocker to help maintain the myth of the hero.
The Eagle and the Hawk presents some interesting questions without ever giving clear cut answers to those questions. What does it mean to be a hero? On the one hand, there is Young, a decorated war hero whose spirit is slowly destroyed by the very acts that elevate him in the eyes of his peers. At one point in the film he asks Carol Lombard’s unnamed character if she thinks he is a coward, and she answers that no, she doesn’t believe he is. Objectively, no one else should deem him a coward, either. The man faces death on a daily basis, and despite losing one colleague after another, he soldiers on and does as he’s asked.
On the other hand, there is Crocker, a man who is neither decorated nor hailed by his fellow pilots. Early on he’s ostracized by his own group for shooting down an unarmed German observer parachuting from a balloon. His explanation for his behavior – that the man could have valuable information the enemy could use to compromise their position – is a perfectly logical and acceptable justification, but the other pilots still can’t condone killing an unarmed man. Crocker takes this in stride, though, and continues doing his job. He puts himself – and his fellow pilots – in harm’s way so long as the greater benefit outweighs the risks. Sometimes, it seems, sacrificing an individual is a necessary evil, so long as a greater benefit is to be derived, at least in his eyes.
Crocker’s bravest act, however, is in maintaining the illusion of Young the hero. Despite their personal conflict, he knows what the myth of Young means to the other men. When given the opportunity to expose Young as something of a fraud, Crocker takes the opposite approach and does everything he can to maintain the illusion. He covers for Young when he begins to crack, and he covers for Young even after he breaks down completely. Crocker will never receive acclaim for his actions like Young, but he is just as heroic, albeit in a different way.
The Eagle and the Hawk is by no means an uplifting story. It’s a thought-provoking film that starts off like a comedy but gradually becomes darker and darker, reflecting the inner journey of its protagonist. While it may not qualify as a classic, the performances by Cary Grant and Fredric March elevate the film and make it worth seeing.
Dan Slaten is a movie enthusiast from Montgomery, AL.